Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Litany of Yoda, the Church, and Social Media

This weekend I saw a few minutes of a special on ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), George Lucas' company that started (and has since continued to constantly be on the leading edge of) the special effects era of Hollywood. Lucas started the company to help him pull off the effects he was looking for in Star Wars, and the company has gone on to be involved in basically any movie that has had revolutionary special effects - E.T., Indiana Jones, Terminator, Transformers, and countless others that I'm sure I've missed.

I bring this up here because I like the word at the end of the company's name - MAGIC. Since the first cave man made a rock disappear and then pulled it out of his friend's ear, magic has been something that has made us do two things a) partly believe that it actually happened, and b) wonder how they pulled off making us believe that it actually happened. Special effects in movies, then, are just a continuation of magic; we believe, on some level, that it is actually happening, and we also wonder, in real time, "how are they doing this?"

There is a problem with magic, though, in terms of how we sometimes respond to it. If a "magician" (or "movie director" or "entertainer") is using magic to entertain and to inspire wonder. However, if a "magician" is using magic to get people to be impressed with him or her, so that THEN the magician can "preach"; if magic is used as a way to wow crowds into THEN listening to a message (much like a medicine man rolling into town) then there are problems. And we must admit that many are wowed today by magic, and will much more readily listen to a "magician's" message simply because they are impressed with the magic.

Which brings me to Yoda. In the Empire Strikes Back, Yoda says "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." That is, to me, a very jarbled and confused litany. I don't pretend to say that George Lucas had an evil or delusional purpose in making Star Wars (although one must admit that there is a vague spirituality behind the movies); Lucas' intent doesn't really matter, what matters is that lots of people, impressed by the magic of Star Wars, more readily listen to the philosophy spouted by a puppet than would listen to a real flesh and blood person. When I coached football at Chatard, each week a senior gave a reflection on Scripture. One week, one of our seniors stood up and gave a reflection on the above quote from Yoda. Yoda over the Scriptures? Really?

Thus we come to the Church. There is a tough balance that the Church is trying to walk. The question we need to ask seems to me to be two-fold: 1) how much magic should we employ to get our message across and 2) if we get in to the game of using "magic" to make our message seem more credible, how much are we validating the idea that it is in fact the case that magic does make the message more credible.

Perhaps an example would be best at this point. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, the Bishops of the U.S. put out a 40 page document on how a Catholic should approach the voting booth. The message, if you could cut through all the theology and philosophy (no small task), was that "you can't vote for Obama, McCain isn't ideal either, but he is a way better option. Obama no, McCain, maybe." You can disagree with that message if you want, this post isn't about that, what it is about is that no one actually READ the document because no one reads 40 page documents anymore. The message was not heard, and the vast majority of Catholics voted for the candidate who was (and is) committed to making abortion/embryonic stem cell research/euthanasia/homosexual marriage etc. some of his top priorities.

People who have a message that is the direct opposite of the Church crank out videos and tweets and songs etc. that get people to listen to their message because they use "magic." What the Bishops of our country need to look at is the question of how to speak to that type of culture. How many dioceses have an office devoted to publishing youtube clips about the messages they are trying to send? How many Bishops are on Twitter and Facebook, how many Bishops use this "magic" to help get the message of the Gospel out? Those that enter the fray and join in the social media crusade and who are involved and passionate about film and so forth also need to constantly remind themselves and others that the "magic" is simply a means to make the message more appealing; that the magic is not the pill, it is simply the coating around the pill to make it more digestible, because we will never win going head to head with ILM and the many other organizations that have billions of dollars to devote to magic. How do we use this "magic" to draw people in so that, some day, they will be people who will want to look at a 40 page election document that talks about forming one's conscience, objective truth, the hierarchy of truth, etc.?

May we be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.


  1. Hi John, as a pastor of a church in Australia (not catholic by the way) I often think about the use of "magic" as you describe. Sometimes it's simply trying to be culturally relevant and translating the message into the language and media that people actually use today.

    In some ways it answers the question of one of your earlier posts I just read titled "What's wrong with normal Catholic words?" What's wrong with them? Well, sometimes people just don't understand them. If we want people to really listen to a message they think they don't need, we have to be concise, crystal clear and speak the right language. No more 40 page documents! When I look at the way Christ spoke to people, it is uncanny just how quickly He gets to the heart of people's issues. I pray we can do the same.

    Thanks for your posts, I have found some interesting reading and different perspectives.

    1. Father Hollowell: I like the above observations. As an avid Star Wars fan, the Yoda quote is not from the Empire Strikes Back; rather, it is from the Phantom Menace. Yoda warns the young Anakin Skywalker about fear and its implications. Just keeping you honest, dear Father. Also, I think you will get that Red Hat, despite what the very progressive, former Trappist has to say about you. Obviously, he had commitment issues to begin with and now, in typical liberal fashion, wants to pounce on someone who is a beacon for the truth. Keep up the good work. Your brother priest, dew

    2. Thanks for the help - of course you are correct in the quote being from the Phantom Menace. As a Star Wars fan can you stand any of the three newest films? I like movies in general, but I consider Star Wars Episodes 1-3 to be three of the worst films of all time! :) where are you at with them?

    3. I liked them. I will provide my reasons at a later date. I just finished showing my admin. asst. your response to the idiot rapper and his insulting remarks on Jesus and the Church. As other comments indicate, your response was simple, clever, and brilliant. Keep it up.

    4. One more for the road...I think it is very important to note that your detractors, those say they disagree with you, can not seem to refute you. I might have to start calling you the "ROYCE GRACIE" of the Catholic blogo-sphere. Again, you are doing great evangelization. Good on you...

  2. C,

    I think the point of my post on "What's wrong with normal Catholic Words" was not talking about the tendency by some explaining the faith to be wordy; the post in question was focusing on how some people substitute watered down and neutered words that are completely ambiguous for meaningful Catholic words that have meant something for a long time. In this case, though, the substitution is a 1 word to 1 word ratio.

    I agree we need to be clearer in first presenting our beliefs (while not losing the theologically important "wordiness" for those who are looking for that too), but I don't think we need to sub in vague words for concise ones.

    God bless you in your ministry!

  3. Lucas loosely based "The Force" and Yoda on Taoist beliefs. While not catholic, Yoda's saying is valid as a description of the root of hate and evil. Conquer fear, then hate has nowhere to live.